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This story is taken from Opinion at sacbee.com.

Editorial: Klamath conundrum

Science points to a political solution

(Published October 27, 2003)

The Klamath River basin, site of one of the West's most intractable water problems, recently got a new and important dose of science that should make alfalfa farmers, salmon fishermen and federal agencies equally uncomfortable. These groups are all part of the problem. If there is ever to be peace on the river, they have to work together for a solution that provides enough clean water at the right temperature to keep fish swimming and spawning in the Klamath.

The current situation produces a near-monthly political battle over flows in the river. Does the federal Bureau of Reclamation release water from the polluted Klamath Lake, home of endangered suckerfish, which need clean water? If so, does the water flow into the Pacific Ocean to help sustain the river's salmon and steelhead? Or does this flow get diverted by farmers who contract with the bureau for irrigation water?

This new, exhaustive review by the National Academies of Science adds two important ingredients to this ongoing political struggle -- temperature and tributaries.

For a tour of the issues, let's start upstream, in Klamath Lake.

The organic stew in this lake (much of it purely natural, some from agriculture runoff) is endangering the suckers because these fish have been cut off from other hangouts upstream. The solution won't be found in diluting the pollution by holding more water back, but in restoring access to tributaries upstream.

Miles of tributary access could be restored by getting rid of a small dam that should have been demolished years ago. Why hasn't this happened? Agencies such as the Bureau of Reclamation have been taking too narrow a view of their job.

Below the dam and in the river, the science points to three issues -- the tributaries once again, their water temperature and those hatchery-bred salmon.

Too many of the tributaries, such as the Shasta River, are now dry riverbeds, drained by farming. Cold underground water once fed these rivers and kept alive fish such as Coho salmon that depend on chilly pools of water in the summer. That water now goes onto hot alfalfa fields in the summer, particularly to get an extra harvest for the year. More of this cool underground water needs to stay underground and to feed the tributaries. This points to a modest reduction in farming and some careful management of the underground water supply.

The wild salmon, meanwhile, aren't being done any good by the hatchery-bred fish. The academies propose a halt to the hatcheries for one life cycle (a few years) of the salmon and to monitor what happens. The fishermen who simply want any old salmon on a hook won't care for this idea, but if the goal is lasting river restoration, the potential role of the hatcheries can't be ignored.

If the hope was for the scientists to find some pain-free solution, the warring interests will be disappointed in this report. If they want advice on how to maximize the benefit of this limited resource -- water -- to farmers and fish, they now have a road map for the political compromises ahead.

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